For years, rural development dominated developing world economic discourse. Most of Africa’s population resided in the countryside and the agrarian economy was central to most economic activity. So the untapped potential of rural areas was central to most political and developmental narratives.
The socioeconomic role of cities and towns was often taken for granted in comparison — a proclivity that was in part due to the failed expectations that industry and urbanisation would catalyse modernisation during the years following Independence.
Most African cities have gone from being necessary but unremarkable hubs and service centres to generic-looking obstacle courses of snarled traffic, uncollected trash, and pollution. Poor and unplanned settlements dominate large swathes of the cityscape.
In the posh areas, a combination of money and a growing middle class has triggered the architectural version of the standard school uniform: Pleasant multi-story residential boxes with small variations in colour schemes and design planted amidst the glass-coated business towers looming above them.
The growth many African countries have experienced lately only makes things worse. Addis Ababa, for example, was until recently a pleasant and distinctively African city. Now it is deteriorating into an incoherent patchwork; colonial era neighbourhoods are giving way to highrises and the raised monorail bisecting the city’s heart has mutilated Meskal Square beyond recognition. A bloated new African Union headquarters built by the Chinese looms over the more aesthetic building it replaced.
Growth has robbed cities like Addis, Accra and Nairobi of much of their original character. But all the tacky strip malls, mushrooming tenements of cheaply constructed five-story housing blocks, and sleek-looking buildings teeming with tiny shops inside are actually the orifices of a much larger mask. Behind it lie complicated webs of interactions, transactions, and demographic processes reforming the city from the inside. The vertical growth of African cities should not distract from the pulsating movement and vibrant activity on the street.
Urban areas will soon house the majority of the planet’s population, making cities the new foci of interest for a numerous reasons. In Africa they typically generate most of a nation’s economic value, provide diverse and higher paying jobs, and act as magnets for he more educated segment of rural youth.
Nairobi is a case in point; it generates something over 60 per cent of Kenya’s economic value. Although developments in the urban milieu are not likely to usurp the role of the conventional developmental ideology, have long figured larger than life on the farm or the range among a large portion of the continent’s population. For a young Kenyan, to make it to Nairobi and survive was until recently a measure of success.
Nairobi’s Eastleigh area is an example of how urbanisation is generating some of Africa’s more unexpected development pathways. It is in many ways a contradictory accident of a neighbourhood that morphed into a transnational bazaar powered by pastoralist capital. Its uncountable small shops, great eateries and cafes, and surging population are squeezed in to a compact 2,000-acre grid.
Eastleigh has always been one of Nairobi’s more distinctive spaces, a multi-ethnic and interactive free zone abutting the city’s “historical” estates like Majengo, Kamukunji, Mathare Valley, and California. Its cosmopolitan ambiance provided the template for its 1990s transition into the single most diverse and energetic commercial hub of its kind across the greater Horn of Africa region. The transformation made it the worthy subject of Prof Neil Carrier’s new book, Little Mogadishu: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub.
Prof Carrier’s documentation of its rapid transformation over the past two decades should help reset our thinking about the role of African cities and how their transformative mix of communities, cultures, commerce, and communal dynamics are reconfiguring urban landscapes.
It is a fascinating account, and an important contribution to the literature on the more unanticipated impacts of ethnicity, conflict, and globalisation. Eastleigh’s spreading fame makes the publication of Carrier’s book of interest to a wider audience beyond the usual academic and Africana readership.
The book provides a straightforward ethnographic account of Eastleigh’s evolution. Designated as an Asian settlement area, the estate began to deviate from the colonial urban planning template at an early stage.